Aligning Artistic Ambition with Marketing Strategy at Lookingglass Theatre Company

By Robert Sweibel · December 21, 2020

The Client

Founded in 1988, Chicago’s Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company is a nationwide leader in the creation and presentation of new, cutting-edge, ensemble-based theatrical works. Their notable world premieres include Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning Metamorphoses and The Arabian Nights, David Schwimmer’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and David Catlin’s circus tribute to Lewis Carroll, Lookingglass Alice. Lookingglass’ work has been produced in more than a dozen US cities. 

The Brief

Pre-pandemic, our executive search brought Maggie McNamara to the theatre as Marketing Director. We simultaneously conducted a marketing assessment to jumpstart her tenure. We evaluated staffing, media planning, digital infrastructure, creative development, and more, with a particular emphasis, as always, on strategy. Strategy, strategy, strategy.  Because—let’s all say it together—strategy powers success.

The Big Picture

Most importantly, and perhaps most interestingly, we initiated a conversation with Lookingglass’ ensemble leadership about how the artistic and marketing teams could more effectively collaborate, not just to sell more tickets but to make the company more impactful in its community.

With a (pre-pandemic) season of only three shows, each performed over a three-month run in a small venue, the organization’s business model places significant financial pressure on each show to achieve its financial goals. There’s just not all that much product over which to spread the financial risk. Of course, this is fundamentally at odds with the creative impulses that drive the ensemble, and those are the impulses that arts marketers want to support. 

Each Lookingglass production is developed over a period of years, not months. And each year, the ensemble retreats to select three shows from among the perhaps dozens in development for production… within months. You see where I’m going here?

The partnership between artistic and marketing is critical to success at any organization, and particularly in the performing arts, where the product varies constantly and dramatically, and the only real constant is risk. Artists put their lives’ energy into their art. As marketers, we’re driven by our own professional passion to develop strategies worthy of that art: 

  • Spot-on creative development that effectively positions and activates the artists’ ideas;
  • Data-inspired media, PR, promotion, and direct-to-consumer campaigns that deliver through every part of the sales funnel;
  • Smart community partnerships that extend the organization into the community and amplify its impact.

What if, we asked, the Lookingglass ensemble could give marketing a year or more of lead-time on each production selected? What if each production was announced a year or more in advance? Time is an incredibly valuable commodity. The ensemble knows that; it’s part of their own special sauce. What if marketing had more time for that spot-on creative, data-inspired campaigns, and meaningful partnerships? More time to build interest and generate ticket sales?

But this article isn’t just about time (get it?). It’s about the critical yet often underdeveloped alignment between artistic and marketing departments at arts organizations all around the country.

The Big Idea 

To remain relevant, arts institutions need to evolve to fully reflect and fully serve their communities. Organizations need to walk the talk of the last generation, and actually become more equitable and more accessible to more people. This means delivering meaningfully curated artistic programming outside their venues, digitally and physically.

The marketing-artistic partnership is the most potent tool to fuel this evolution. Why? Because marketing is powerful: 

  • Marketing drives research.
  • Marketing drives partnerships.
  • Marketing drives engagement and audience loyalty.
  • And most crucially, marketing drives understanding—understanding of what the community looks like, what the community needs, what the community values. Marketing drives community.

As Lookingglass plans to re-open its doors, conversations are underway that ask the big questions. Not, “How do we entice wary audiences back into our venues?” Not, “How do we maintain our new digital footprint?” But rather, “How do we align marketing with artistic to empower the organization in real service to the community?” This fills me with optimism.

In this difficult yet thrilling time, I call upon arts institutions across the United States to invest more deeply in the internal alignment between artistic and marketing. In my 35 years in the business, the strength of this partnership has always distinguished the most effective organizations. Think Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Each is dedicated to lifting up its community. Each is invested in the capacity of marketing to help artists shape the organizational vision and curate work that speaks to everybody. There’s untapped power in this unity.

Pictured at top: Artistic Associate Walter Briggs, Artistic Associate Kasey Foster, and Lanise Antoine Shelley in Lookingglass Theatre Company’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. Photo by Liz Lauren.